Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains role of the notary in Trentino society, and how discover exciting details about your notary ancestors in church and civil documents.
One afternoon in 2014, I was sitting a kitchen in the tiny frazione of Bono, in the parish of Santa del Croce. I had just had the thrill of being reconnected with my long-lost 2nd cousins, the grandchildren of the elder brother (Erminio Onorati) of my paternal grandmother (Maria Giuseppa Onorati). Located in the Giudicarie Valley, Bono has been the home of the Onorati family for at least the past 600 years – probably centuries longer. And this grand, multi-storied mountain house in which we were sitting – although beautifully remodelled and modernised – had been the home of our Onorati ancestors for unknown generations.
As my cousins shared precious old photos of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ families with me, we also shared stories about our childhood families – on both sides of the Atlantic – As we shared our filò, my cousins mentioned that the Onorati were renowned in the Giudicarie because they had been ‘notaries’ for many centuries.
At first, I didn’t understand the significance of being a notary (notaio), as my past experiences with notaries hadn’t made particularly lasting impressions on me. When I was a teen in the US, I went to a notary at the post office to get an application endorsed for my first passport. Many years later, after I had moved to the UK, I went to a notary who endorsed some legal documents for me. To be honest, I don’t even remember what those papers were anymore! In short, a ‘notary’ was someone so much on the periphery of my daily life that I kind of gave them no thought at all. So, naturally, when my cousins inferred that being a notaio was some really big deal, I realised they were probably talking about something with which I wasn’t actually familiar.
Since then, I have studied and learned a great deal about notai (plural of notaio) and discovered many notaio families in both my clients’ ancestries and my own. Identifying notai in our family trees can be an exciting discovery, as it brings depth to our understanding of their lives, education, social status and even marital customs.
That why I thought it would be a great idea to write an introductory article just about notaries in Trentino. So today, we’ll explore who the notai were in Trentino society, how to find out more about our notary ancestors, and how their presence on our family trees can enrich our understanding of our Trentino heritage.
The Profession of the Notaio
While most of us in English-speaking countries think of a notary simply as someone who endorses signatures on official documents, in Italy they served (and still serve) a much more significant role in government and daily life.
A notaio is a legal professional whose title is granted either by a sovereign or by a local authority. In the past, those appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor (or the Austrian Emperor, after the HRE collapsed) were called notaries with imperial authority.
Performing his duties within an assigned territory/jurisdiction, a notary served the public by giving legal certainty to deeds, contracts, wills, trade agreements, legalization of signatures, etc. for his clients.
From what I have seen, notaries were often a varied mix of scribe, contract lawyer, registrar and (occasionally) tax collector.
The Education of the Notaio
A notaio was a highly-educated man. He was literate in both his native tongue as well as Latin. He was also fully educated in law, contracts and legal requirements. He also had to have very clear handwriting (unlike some of the priests who maintained parish records!) to ensure his contracts were legible. That said, some notaries used special scribes to draft the document, and which they then signed and authorised with their own official mark.
In a time of wide-spread illiteracy, their high degree of education, endorsements from legal authorities, and the vital role they played within their communities meant the notai were especially elevated in social status.
The Notaio in Society
Some the more renowned and experienced notai would work at the regional castles, or as personal assistants to specific government or church officials. I have also seen a few go on to become court judges and law makers.
But the majority of notai worked within their own local communities. This meant that they knew the families for which they performed their duties. Every official document, every official bill of sale or land agreement, every legal dispute, Will, dowry or inheritance settlement would have been drafted and handwritten by a local notary, who would sign the document with his official hand-drawn mark, used only by him.
Our contadini (farmer) ancestors didn’t go to some distant, impersonal government office to get these documents made and signed. Their local notaio would typically meet with them (along with the required witnesses) in a neighbour’s sitting room or courtyard, or sometimes in the rectory of the church (often in the presence of the parish priest). We know this because the notary always records the place in which the document was written and signed.
How Can You Know If Your Ancestor Was a Notary?
If your ancestor was a notaio, there will be obvious indications in any parish records in which he is named.
First of all, a parish record will very often SAY notaio (if the record is in Italian) or notarius (if the record is in Latin). This is especially the case if the person is serving in some official capacity at an event, (such as a witness at a wedding), but it would generally be mentioned even if it is talking about the father of a baptised child, the father of someone who is getting married, etc.
Secondly, the name of a notary is almost always preceded with some sort of honourific term, the most common of which are ‘spectacularus’ (often abbreviated as ‘spec’), egregio and excellentia. Any of these terms would convey a similar meaning to ‘the illustrious’, ‘the honourable’, ‘his excellency’, etc. Be aware, however, that these honourifics may also be used with rural nobility (and sometimes doctors), who may or may not be notaries.
Discovering More About Your Notary Ancestor
If you see such indications in the parish records, you might then wish to see if that person is mentioned in a book called Notai Che Operano Nel Trentino dell’Anno 845 by P. Remo Stenico. This book is widely considered to be the most comprehensive list of Trentino notaries throughout the centuries, although I must confess that I have found several people who are cited as being notaries in the parish records who are not listed in the book.
The names of the notaries are listed in alphabetical order, using Latin spellings. In most cases, Stenico provides the earliest and latest dates he has be able to find during which the notary was actively in practice. This can often help you estimate birth and death dates, if you do not have access to them in the original parish records. SOMETIMES Stenico also mentions the name of the father or other family members of the notary, which can be a real find. Once I even learned the name of my 8X great-grandmother from Stenico’s list, as she was cited as both the wife and the daughter of prominent notaries.
Stenico’s book is a ‘must have’ for anyone researching their Trentino ancestry. You can download the PDF version of this book for free by http://www.db.ofmtn.pcn.net/ofmtn/files/biblioteca/Notai.pdf
Pergamene – Parish and Municipal Parchments
While most of us tend to think of baptismal, marriage and death records as the cornerstones of genealogy, one of the greatest treasures in the archives held both by parishes and comuni are their ‘pergamene’ or parchments.
These libraries of documents – some going back over 1,000 years – contain everything from government decrees, land sales, legal disputes, and even local histories. Whenever these documents were official in nature, you can be sure a notary wrote and signed it. Occasionally, if a document became damaged with time, another notary may have rewritten it; but it is amazing how many of these documents still exist in their original form, with the original notary’s signature and mark.
The Provincial Archives for the province of Trento have been very active in working to digitise pergamene of the parishes and comuni throughout Trentino. If you search for a specific parish, comune or surname in their online catalogue, you might discover pergamene written by your notary ancestor. While most of the digital images are NOT yet available online, you can obtain copies of those of interest if you personally the Provincial Archives in Trento. You can search their inventory at https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/sistema/semplice.
You might also find some ORIGINAL notary records at ‘Sala Trentina’ at the Trento Municipal Library (Biblioteca Comunale di Trento). On my last trip, I found a legal dispute from 1618 over an unpaid dowry between one of my Onorati ancestors and his wife’s brothers. Apparently, their father died shortly after the wedding, and the brothers didn’t bother to make good on their late father’s agreement! I had originally discovered the existence of document in the catalogue at the Provincial Archives, but then learned it was actually kept at the library. It was wonderful to be able to hold the original document in my hands, and for a nominal fee the librarians made a PDF scan of it for me so I could take it home and study it.
The Mark of a Notaio
Finding an original document written by your notary ancestor is especially exciting for a family historian; not only will be able to see your ancestor’s handwriting and his signature, but also his unique notary mark.
A notary mark is a combination of signature and artistic flair. This mark was handwritten, not a stamp, as it would be today. Each mark was as individual as the person using it, making it difficult (if not impossible) to be imitated or forged.
On a recent trip to the Provincial Archives in Trento, I obtained digital images of several interesting notary marks made by my own ancestors, as well as a few of my clients’ ancestors. Personally, I get a thrill when I look at these little works of art, some of which were drawn half a millennium ago.
This notary mark is from a document written in 1521 by Sebastiano Genetti, son of Giovanni, of Castelfondo in Val di Non. If you look at the end of the first line of his signature, he specifies he is authorised by the a ‘sacra imperiali’, i.e. he was a notary with imperial authority. In fact, later in his life, Sebastiano was ennobled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Massimiliano II. Sebastiano was my 11X great-grandfather.
This notary mark is from 1631 and was written by Marco Campi, son of Antonio Campi, of Gallio in Santa Croce del Bleggio in Val Giudicarie. Marco also came from a noble family. Notice Marco’s notary mark is a castle. This is because their family name was originally ‘Castello Campo’, and simply ‘Campo’ or ‘Da Campo’ before that. The Da Campo family built the medieval castles Castello Campo and Castel Toblino in the 13th century. This and other notary documents written by Marco have enabled me to narrow down his death date to within three months (between Feb and April 1636), as his the last document I can find with his signature is dated 28 Jan 1626, and he is cited as deceased in the marriage record of one of his daughters on May 3rd of the same year. This is especially helpful as there are no death records for Santa Croce before the year 1638. It was also very helpful because prior to finding these notary records, I had wondered if Marco had died during the great plague of 1630, but apparently he survived. He was 66 when he died.
Signed on 14 July 1636, this notary mark is from Lorenzo Levri of Fiavè, also in Val Giudicarie. The mark looks like a baptismal font to me, but I am not if that is what it is supposed to be. Notice Lorenzo’s initial (L.L.) in the centre of the mark. Working under the Giudizio di Stenico, Lorenzo operated at least between the years of 1635-1669, (possibly longer), so this was relatively early in his career. The Levri family had many notaries throughout the centuries, at least from 1521 through the early 1800s. In older Latin records you will usually see their surname written as ‘Lepori-‘ (with various endings, depending on the grammar of the sentence).
While not a blood relation of mine (he was distantly connected via marriage), the document from which this came was land sale agreement involving my 9X great-grandfather Sebastiano Sebastiani of Comighello.
Notary Mark 4
Click on image to see it in full size.
This last image is from September 1642, and is an example of one of the dozens of notaries from the Onorati family of Bono, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article. This notary mark is for Felice, son of ‘the living’ Giovanni Onorati (spelled ‘Honorati’ in Latin). Notice his initials ‘F-H’ (linked together) in the centre of the mark.
Felice was a distant cousin, but was in the same family as many of Onorati notary ancestors. I thought his notary mark was so lovely I had to share it. The record from which this comes is a debt resolution agreement for a man named Bartolomeo Giovanna, who was a distant uncle of mine, and the 8X great-grandfather of a friend/cousin of mine living in California.
I hope this article has given you some information, ideas and inspiration to investigate whether any of your own ancestors were notaries, and to find out more about their lives and their work. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below.
For those of you who may be seeking some help in researching your Trentino ancestors — notaries or not — I am going back to Trento from 26 June to 10 July 2018. If you would like me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
And finally, whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.
Until next time, enjoy the journey.
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LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.
In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.
View the Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry: